Monday, September 30, 2013

He Doesn't Have to Be a Harvard Man

I often hear insinuations from various sectors that evangelical schools are not as academically rigorous as other secular schools. There may be some truth to this when discussing religious schools in general, but this has not been my experience in my education. I attended secular schools before I went to Moody in my undergrad and I’ve also attended UPenn in my grad, as well as having a knowledge of what other schools are teaching from professors, students, and syllabi/courses offered from those schools. So I wanted to just compare some of the courses I’ve taken in my graduate studies with the main courses that a PhD or ThD student from Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School must take. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily tell you how rigorous the courses are, but in my experience, they are pretty equivalent to one another.

Trinity/Westminster MA/ThM/PhD Courses
Havard MA/PhD Courses (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Program)
Religions of the Ancient Near East
Introduction to Mesopotamian Religion
Akkadian I & II
Introduction to Akkadian
Biblical and Targumic Aramaic
Introduction to Ancient Aramaic and Targumic and Related Aramaic
Middle Egyptian
Introduction to Egyptian Hieroglyphs I & II
Readings in Biblical Hebrew
Rapid Reading in Classical Hebrew I & II
Hebrew Exegesis
Intermediate Classical Hebrew
History of Israel
Problems in Literature, History, and Religion of Ancient Israel
West-Semitic Inscriptions
Introduction to Northwest Semitic Epigraphy
Introduction to Ugaritic
Elementary Sumerian
Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period
Inner-Biblical Interpretation
Qumran Scrolls (Classical Hebrew Readings)

Egypt and the Bible

Theological German
German for Reading

Now, these are just the courses that my schools have in common with Harvard’s PhD program in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Obviously, at Harvard you can do further readings in some of the literature (as I experienced at UPenn). These are just the courses that I took, not everything that was offered either. My point here is to say that these “evangelical schools” are far more rigorous than one might think, as the bulk of their courses intersect heavily with those at the top Ivy League schools in our country.
Here is a comparison between Harvard’s Divinity School ThD and the Biblical Courses I’ve taken.
Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period
Apocalyptic Literature of the Second Temple Period
History of the Ancient Near East
History of the Ancient Near East
Hebrew Exegesis and Advanced Hebrew Exegesis
Intermediate Hebrew I & II
New Testament Textual Criticism
New Testament Manuscript Studies and Textual Criticism
West-Semitic Inscriptions
Northwest Semitic Epigraphy
Hebrew Reading Skills
Classical Hebrew, Rapid Reading I & II
The Septuagint and the New Testament
Readings in the Septuagint
Greek Exegesis I & II
Intermediate Greek I & II
New Testament Interpretation
Diversity in New Testament Interpretation
Advanced Greek Grammar and Greek Discourse Analysis
Advanced Greek I & II
Theological German
Advanced Intermediate German Readings
Patristic Exegesis


The Hebrew Synoptics

Greek Exegesis of the Gospel of Luke

History of the Reformation

To tell you the truth, Havard’s divinity school is inundated with a lot sociological studies about this or that, a lot of contemporary studies that have to do with feminist biblical interpretation and gender studies, pietism, and world religious studies (studies in Buddhism, Islam, etc.) that wouldn’t overlap. The vast majority of what they offer in terms of biblical studies is represented above. One can see the overlap with just the courses I’ve taken (and much more was offered, of course, at Trinity and Westminster that I didn’t take). It also doesn’t take into account the continued readings I had to do in my Old Testament and New Testament theses.

Hence, the idea that evangelical schools are somehow less academic is complete nonsense. I only wish I could have stayed longer and taken more courses offered, like “The Origins of Israel,” or “Advanced Hebrew Exegesis in Judges,” or “Advanced Hebrew Grammar,” or “Advanced Greek Exegesis in Hebrews,” etc.

Of course, I have more overlap with what Harvard offers in my undergrad as well, but I was comparing my Grad Schools with their Grad School. If I compared my undergrad with their Undergrad/Grad, I could show a lot more overlap (History of Judaism and Islam, World Religions, Biblical Hermeneutics, Greek Grammar I & II, Hebrews, Isaiah, Survey of the Old and New Testament, Systematic Theology I, II, and III, History of Doctrine, Church History, Biblical Homiletics, Christian Ethics, German, etc.).
I think this shows that that, in many cases, the schools overlap in what they teach and the amount of work that one can do in order to obtain his degree. In some cases, Harvard offers courses to continue on in things like Sumerian and Akkadian that one would have to make a special request at Trinity to pursue (although the profs there I’m sure would comply). But in many cases, my schools offered more in other areas than Harvard does. In fact, Peter Machinist, when I went to interview there years ago, simply admitted to me, when I informed him that I wanted to pursue Egyptological studies, as well as Assyriological and Hebrew studies, in my degree, that the school was just too ill-equipped in that area. There also seems to be very little study of theory at the school in terms of applying metaphysical and epistemological insights to biblical and historical study, even though they are assumed throughout. This is a common problem, and one that I think creates the myth that evangelical schools are less rigorous simply because they do not approach the subject as philosophic naturalists.

And that seems to be the real origin of the claim that these schools are less academically rigorous. The attitude is that, unless you hold our worldview when you approach your topic of study, you are not as scholarly as we are. This is why people with less education than I have can tell me how uneducated I am, merely because if I were really educated, I would hold to their worldview and epistemology. But the assertion has nothing to do with being educated, only into which worldview one is educated. Of course, if philosophic/metaphysical naturalism is false, then the epistemology is false, and the education of the secular university is what is less scholarly, having come to faulty conclusions and a process of knowledge that is incoherent and self-defeating.

In essence, however, you don't have to be a Harvard Man to have a Harvard education, just a Harvard indoctrination. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament

John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament. Carol Stream, IL, Crossway, 2013. Currid is the Carl McMurray Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.

I'd like to thank Crossway for this complementary copy for review.

Currid begins his book by saying that the book is not an attempt to be an exhaustive look at the relationship between the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature. His purpose is merely to give an introduction to the topic to laymen and to emphasize what he considers to be occasionally deemphasized by some scholars, namely, the polemical aspect of the Old Testament's use of ANE ideas found within that culture's literature.

As an introduction for layman, the book will be nothing new to scholars, unless those scholars are so unfamiliar with the literature of the ANE that they still believe the older views of borrowing that was prevalent during the pan-Babylonian phase of Old Testament studies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Currid mainly works his way through the Pentateuchal traditions (i.e., creation, the deluge, the story of Joseph, and the story of Moses) and argues that much of what has been considered as borrowed is often commandeered for polemical purposes. He does not reject nor deny that there is quite a bit of assimilation of ancient Near Eastern ideas within the biblical text, but merely wishes to point out that the Bible's polemical use of other concepts makes it unique.

He identifies the main uniqueness of the Bible in terms of its monotheism and the intended historicity of its accounts, although there are many other issues where the Bible presents itself as unique (e.g., the presentation of mankind as made to rule creation as a king rather than a slaves to serve the gods food and do their labor for them).

He's sees a lot of what is said as a "turning on its head" major cultural ideas in an effort to convey YHWH as supreme and sole deity.

The book is very short. He makes some good observations, again, nothing too new that anyone not familiar with the literature would notice--although, I did like the observation that story concerning Horus as the abandoned and redeemed child was purposely set on its head by the biblical author to show that Egypt was like the evil Seth who sought to kill the child rather than the innocent Horus who had favor with deity.

However, many connections that Currid seeks to make can be disputed. For instance, the idea that the Exodus author is interacting with an older myth where a magician folds the water on top of itself, rather than just seeing, as most Exodus scholars do, the text as an allusion to the creation motif where water is split and dry land appears because YHWH is creating through the chaotic event.

There is also a lack of interaction with the idea that there are just these common motifs within ANE culture that play out because (1) they're things that do occur often, and (2) they are prevalent in other ANE cultures. Is the biblical author attempting to interact with all of them? Some of them? None of them? It just depends upon whether one sees the motif as specific to a particular story or as a result of a culture-wide phenomenon.

The book is a nice little introduction to some of the Egyptian literature out there that may intersect in some way with the biblical text, and much of that may, indeed, be polemical (Currid does have some good arguments for some of it), but I'm not sure how much any of this is really that new to anyone.

I also thought that Currid did not really clearly articulate how the Bible was being polemical. In many instances, he seems to be saying that the biblical portrait is historical, but then that the biblical author uses these myths to flip the message on its head. But this latter observation seems to be what most Old Testament scholars would say. If I can summarize what I think he is getting at, I would say that he views the biblical text as polemical in the sense that it is really how the events took place and God is using myth, brought into existence in real life and history, to convey powerful messages to His people and His enemies.
This is different than many scholars who would merely say that the ideas are flipped, but neither are historical, or that history is presented in these terms, even though the details of the events may have taken place otherwise.

I think all three of these options may be true, depending upon which text is at issue. But there is little discussion along these lines, and the book could have really benefited from that.

Overall, if one is looking for an introduction to these issues, I would recommend Currid's book with a few others that, surprisingly, would be more along the lines of linguistics and interpretation in the comparative process, rather than in direct comparative studies, where the author is just comparing rather than analyzing how he does his comparisons, since I think that is what may be lacking here in some instances.

But Currid does leave us with a wise note in approaching the subject:

Polemical theology certainly does not answer every question about the relationship of the Old Testament to ancient Near Eastern literature and life. There is much to that relationship that simply cannot be understood and explained by the use of polemics. At times, however, polemical theology can serve as a solid and reliable interpretive lens by which one can properly see the significance of a parallel. In addition, and of the utmost importance, is the truth that the biblical writers often employed polemical theology as an instrument to underscore the uniqueness of the Hebrew worldview in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern conceptions of the universe and how it operates. In this day and age, when a considerable number of scholars seek to diminish the originality and uniqueness of the Old Testament, this is no small thing. (141)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Images of the New, Old New Testament Manuscripts

Like that title?

August Colors: Cowardice in Service of the Self

“For the most part, we hesitate to instruct, to admonish, and, as occasion demands, to correct, and even to reprehend them. This we do either because the effort wearies us, or we fear offending them, or we avoid antagonizing them lest they thwart or harm us in those temporal matters where our cupidity ever seeks to acquire or our faint hearts fear to lose.”

                                                                               Augustine, City of God

Sex and the Single Spouse: A Conversation

I have a lot of people write to me because of my book on contraception. They look for all sorts of help with counseling questions, or just want to be affirmed in certain decisions, some of which have to do with contraception, but many of which have to do with other sexual issues. I imagine that this is the case because the book is more about discussing a Christian sexual ethic as applied to contraception than it is about contraception itself. In fact, whenever I've seen it on syllabi for sexual ethics courses, it appears in the general section of sexual ethics within the bibliography, rather than under "contraception," even when there was a separate section for that. Hence, I get a lot of "other" inquiries that stray further from the specifications of that issue. This doesn't really phase me, as I was a pastor for a long time and have gotten a lot these questions from an early age.

One of the most important conversations I had was with a man who informed me that he had had sex with his three former girlfriends before marriage, and even his present wife, before marriage, but now that he matured as a godly man, he no longer had the desire to have sex with his wife. He now found sex to be dirty and something degrading.

The following is the gist of what I said to him in conversational form. We'll call him "Jim" for purposes of this conversation.

Jim: I try to accommodate my wife, but I feel so dirty when we are having sex now. I just see it as that I have really grown a lot and have matured from what I was before marriage. I was quite sexually immoral then and saw sex as something that I constantly wanted, but now I just see it as something unbecoming of a Christian, as a base activity that makes me feel like I've done something wrong before God.

Me: I wonder if you'll indulge me for a moment by looking at a few verses with me.

Jim: Sure, I'd love to.

Me: Great. What I want to do is go back for a moment and ask you a question before we do that.

Jim: OK.

Me: Do you think that God likes you having sex with your wife? In other words, is it something He wants you to do and has delight in your doing it?

Jim: I cringe to even think about that question. It seems so disrespectful of God to suggest that He delights in my having sex with my wife.

Me: OK, well, that basically answers the question for me. You think that sex is something unholy, dirty, and something that is frowned upon, or at the most, reluctantly allowed, by God; and that holiness is bound up with not having sex.

Jim: When you put that way, Yes, I think I do think that way.

Me: OK, well, let's look at some verses.

Jim: OK.

Me: First, if you want to know what God's pleasure is for mankind, then you need to go back to when He made mankind and see what He commanded them to do. So if you look at the very first command given to the human couple that He makes, God explicitly tells them to have sex with one another for the purpose of co-creating more human beings. It is a creative act that counters chaos that works toward a humanless world. Because of that, sex is seen as a godly activity. In fact, it is seen as a primary means of being the image of God. It is through the sexual activity with your wife that you are the image of God, and therefore, represent God by having sex with her for the purpose of family. What is more godly than being the image of God?

Jim: I see.

Me: Now, don't you think that God wants us to have pleasure in obeying Him? Don't you think God wants us to enjoy our task of co-creating? And don't you think that God sees this as a holy activity, not something dirty?

Jim. Well, maybe, but that was before we had sin natures and ruined everything. Now everything just seems corrupted.

Me: I agree, but this command is written down for us to obey after man had fallen. And what we see in the rest of Scripture illumines that, even if we are fallen, God wants us to see this activity as holy, enjoyable, and desirable.

That's why we have the witness of the rest of the Bible to tell us that it is still God's delight for us to have delight in this activity with one another, and it is still holy and good to have pleasure in it.

Jim: Are there other verses that tell us this?

Me: Yes. In Proverbs, we are told that, rather than have pleasure in an evil and dirty form of sex, i.e., adultery, the husband should enjoy the breasts of his wife. She is painted as a fountain of life-giving water from which he should drink, as opposed to another woman who is not his wife who will bring him death. That's God, the Holy Spirit, instructing His people that He wants them to have pleasure in their sexual activity with their wives.

In fact, God sees it as so holy to have such pleasure with one's wife that He inspires the Song of Songs (i.e., "The Greatest Song"), a text that symbolically describes what our relationship with Him should look like, in terms of a couple desiring to have, and having, sex with one another.

Jim: That's hard for me to get my head around. It's seem wrong.

Me: Do you know why you think that way, Jim?

Jim: Why?

Me: Because you're just as sexually immoral today as you were when you weren't married.

Jim: How so?

Me: Because you saw what is considered by the Bible as dirty sex, in a time that you should have abstained from it and saved yourself for your wife, as desirable and something to pursue. You saw it as fun and enjoyed it. But now, when sex is considered by the Bible to be holy activity that God has pleasure in, you want nothing to do with it.
Your view of sex then was twisted into self worship when you weren't married, and your view of sex now is twisted into self worship now that you're married. Either way, you twisted sex into something that it wasn't when you were not married and you twist sex into something it is not now that you are. You haven't matured one bit. You're just as sexually immoral today as you were then. It just expresses itself differently in marriage.

Jim: Wow, I've never thought of that.

Me: You may not realize this, but the New Testament addresses people like yourself, and it considers them nothing close to holy and mature. In fact, when Paul talks to the immature Corinthians, he has to tell them that they are to stop depriving one another of sex and to continually engage in it, making time only for the Lord in prayer. That sounds like quite a bit of sex going on there.

But do you know why the New Testament addresses this?

Jim: No, why?

Me: Because there were groups of people who were teaching that God thinks about sex the way you do. They were proto-gnostics and various types of ascetics who saw sex as something dirty. The proto-gnostics saw it that way because they did not want more children brought into the world that they viewed as evil and corrupt. The ascetics thought of it as dirty, precisely, for the same reasons you do. They thought it was unbecoming of a mature man of God, as God is sexless, therefore, we ought also to be.
This completely ignored that we are not God, and that God has pleasure in our partaking of the things He created for us, as well as partaking in His creative work in the world that is of both a physical and spiritual nature. These ascetics, therefore, were also a type of gnostic in that they split the physical from the spiritual and viewed pleasures as animalistic and unbecoming of a people claiming to be made in the image of God. Of course, as we already saw, the image of God, ironically, is bound up with our obeying God's blessing-command to have sex with our spouses for the purpose of family, and enjoy doing so.

Jim: Wow, I've never thought about that before.

Me: In fact, Jim, the Bible views our sanctification, i.e., our being made holy, not by abstaining from sex, but by not committing sexual immorality. Paul, who says this under the inspiration of God, is the one who said that we avoid sexual immorality by getting married and having sex with our spouses. What that means is that sanctification, i.e., your becoming a mature man of God who reflects God's holiness in marriage, is bound up with your having sex with your wife and viewing it correctly as a vehicle through which you please God and worship Him as His image.
The New Testament considers your view, not holy and from God, but a teaching of demons. In other words, the irony is that your view is a demonic view, one that is unholy and dirty. To not have sex with your spouse because you have a distorted view of sex is dirty, not the other way around.

That's why I've said, Jim, that you are as sexually immoral today as you were when you were not married. It is not that you have matured, but rather that your rebellion against God has expressed itself differently once you got married. You did not have pleasure in doing God's will then, and you do not have pleasure in doing His will now. His will outside of marriage was for you to abstain. His will within marriage was for you to indulge and have pleasure in having sex with your spouse, describing it as drinking up water daily and frequently from a fountain and desiring it like fresh fruit from a tree (which is the equivalent in the ancient Near East to desiring a chocolate cake if chocolate cake was actually healthy for you). You and God have never seen eye to eye about sex. Not then, and not now.

Jim thanked me and said that I'd given him a lot of think about. To be sure, Jim had not only robbed God in indulging in sexual activity with people other than his wife, but he had also robbed her and continues to rob her of a healthy marriage and the very vehicle through which her sanctification comes about within marriage. His disobedience is as much a betrayal of her well-being before God today as it was before he got married. The excitement of the activity, as seen within a context where Jim was obeying God within marriage, was killed by his excitement in seeing the activity within a context where he was disobedient. In essence, he had ruined his marriage before it got started and didn't even know it. The question is whether he will continue to ruin it by allowing those premarital sins to continue being his marital sins. Sex in God's will isn't something that is dirty that needs to be purified. It is something pure that needs to be kept from being seen as dirty. Until we see that, we will continue to be immature and our marriages remain unholy.